The Privilege of Service8 min read

“That’s such an amazing sacrifice you guys are making,” someone once said to me after speaking about our mission work in Latin America and the Caribbean. “I definitely couldn’t do what you do.”

Something about this statement bothered me but I wasn’t sure what it was at first. It was certainly intended to be a compliment and it wasn’t offensive. There was something else that was off about it; something wasn’t right, but I still couldn’t figure it out. Is it the fact that they had said they themselves couldn’t be foreign missionaries? I suppose it’s popular to say these days that anyone can do anything they set their mind to, but we all know that isn’t true. The nature of vocation is that God sends us each to different places to do different tasks.

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We can give kids motivational speeches about how they will all be the president someday, but we know that only one or two kids in the nation in a given generation will become president. I can set my mind to all sorts of things, but I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I will never be a mother. The fact is, God has called some of us to be foreign missionaries, some of us to be pastors, some of us to be teachers, some of us to be mothers and fathers, but all of us to give witness to Jesus Christ. It may well be true that this person couldn’t do what I do, in the same way that I couldn’t do what they do. God had given them a vocation too, both of which are equal because it is God himself who puts us where we are.



So what is it that bothered me about this statement? I suppose having eliminated the second part, it must have to do with the idea that what we do is a sacrifice. Being missionaries in a foreign country doesn’t feel like a sacrifice; we love what we do and we love where we live. Every day is unique and interesting, even if we’re tearing our hair out, we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I suppose what some people mean when they call missionary service a sacrifice is that you are giving up certain comforts from home, like cheeseburgers, safe drinking water from the tap, speaking English, and the like. I guess I can identify with that on a certain level.

For Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien) rushing out the door on his first adventure, his first encounter with difficulty is not the trolls or haunted woods, but sleeping on the ground and skipping second breakfast. But it doesn’t take long for Bilbo, or anyone who is off on a great endeavor, to realize how silly it is to place such value on comfort as soon as they begin to see the real stakes involved. We really don’t consider the lack of American comforts to be a sacrifice at all; it’s more of a trade, over time we’ve gained as much here as we’ve lost.

Sharing God’s Grace

I think what bothers me so much about the word sacrifice, is that every day we wake up and honestly ask ourselves, how did we get to be so fortunate to have this life? Every day we experience God’s grace and mercy being poured out to those who live in darkness. We get to watch the stories from the New Testament unfold over and over again as people are brought to the Baptismal font by God’s overwhelming grace. “Sinners and tax collectors” are eating at the table with Jesus Christ, who gave them His broken body and spilled blood to atone for their sin. We see the miracle of grace in the midst of darkness on a daily basis, and we are permitted to spend all of our time watching God do this. He even allows our hands and our mouths to do it.

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We were visiting a woman in her home here in the Dominican Republic while a Dominican Lutheran deaconess in training was reading a simple devotion from Portals of Prayer. At one point in the devotion it asked a rhetorical question, “Can you think of a time in your life that was as sweet as honey?”

She paused to allow the woman a chance to respond and she did. “My life has been nothing but bitterness,” she said.

She went on to describe how at age 15, her entire family had been brutally massacred in front of her by the knife-wielding, jealous husband of her pregnant sister, who had left him for another man. He left her alive with the explicit directions that she should remember and bear witness to what he had done, and then killed himself in front of her. Have you ever heard or seen something so evil and dark that you felt like there were no words that could possibly be a comfort? Like there was nothing you could share that would bring hope back into a life that had long since abandoned it? We haven’t!

Bought With a Price

We have an amazing gift as Lutheran Christians! We are good news people! Just as Jesus demonstrated in his earthly ministry, we have nothing but good news for the lost and suffering. We are not police barging into a rough neighborhood to drag people off to jail, we are the prison guard with the keys coming to let them out. Our message of law is primarily for the self-righteous who reject grace, and who stand in the way of unlocking those prisons. We didn’t earn those keys ourselves, they were given to us to use; they are a privilege that was won through His sacrifice.

This is the message we were able to share with this woman, that Christ knows what she is suffering, that He is making all things new again, that He has bought her with a price and that He loves her. She doesn’t have to earn grace, it has been given.

There is sacrifice involved in what we do, it’s just that it’s not ours. Jesus is the one who made the ultimate sacrifice for each and every one of the people who we serve whatever our vocation. Because of His sacrifice we have the privilege to serve!

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Living Sacrifices

In Romans 12, Paul urges Christians to be a “living sacrifice.” Is that an oxymoron? How can you give up your life and still be living? Yet, this is exactly what we have seen so many Lutheran Christians do.

Christ’s sacrifice is what set us free to serve. In the same way that He uses us to unlock the prison cells here in Latin America, He has used countless people from the Michigan District to send us. Both Christel and I come from Lutheran families and were raised in Michigan in Lutheran congregations. We both went to Michigan Lutheran grade schools, where dedicated people taught us the very message we share with others even though we never showed them the gratitude that they deserved (I was not an ideal student). Lutheran youth leaders and high school teachers further shaped us, and countless more people touched our lives through their vocations, from elderly ladies in Detroit who baked cookies and came to choir concerts, to classmates and lay leaders in our congregations who taught us. We both attended Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich. and were further shaped and taught. Each person along the way shaped our understanding of this Gospel message and entrusted to us those same keys that had been given to them.

When we accepted the solemn appointment to missionary service almost six years ago, it was largely with the support of individuals in Michigan that we were able to launch to the mission field. What an honor it is to wake up and realize how many people are praying for you, giving to you, have taken their time (and patience in my case) to teach you, and to send you out to share nothing but GOOD NEWS to people who are desperate to hear it. These people have also become living sacrifices in response to God’s great sacrifice to them.

It’s not a sacrifice to serve in the sense of having to suffer, it is a privilege, one that has been given only through the Blood of Christ, and handed down through innumerable faithful people. Knowing what we have been given in Christ, who wouldn’t trade everything they have for it? God has freely given us the greatest treasure that can ever exist, and then entrusted us to go and give it away for free.

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About the Author

Rev. James and Deaconess Christel Neuendorf serve as missionaries in Puerto Rico.

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